Pubdate: Thu, 29 May 2003
Source: Scotsman (UK)
Copyright: The Scotsman Publications Ltd 2003
Author: Edward Black


EUROPE'S mecca for marijuana users has suffered a sobering shock. Under a 
new ban on smoking in public places, the infamous Dutch coffee shops can 
still sell joints, but their customers will have to go outside to smoke them.

The Netherlands' new national health guidelines were aimed at second-hand 
smoke from tobacco, not marijuana. Due to take effect next January, they 
are fiercely contested by Dutch restaurateurs and bar owners. But they are 
also threatening to drive a stake into the heart of the liberal Dutch drugs 

Amsterdam has a history of three decades of social marijuana smoking, and 
the coffee shops and their clientele have reacted with a mix of horror and 
stunned amazement to the new move.

"They've got to be out of their minds," laughed Annemiek van Royan, a 
regular at the Kashmir Lounge coffee shop in west Amsterdam.

Lighting up a joint of Dutch "skunk weed", she said she goes to the coffee 
shop every day, to hang out and talk with other visitors who can lean back 
on colourful embroidered cushions while puffing on their joints.

Andre, at Amsterdam's Big Bong Cafe, did not see the funny side. A 
Frenchman who makes his living in the Netherlands selling hallucinogenic 
smokes to visitors from around the world, he sees his business in ruins.

"The whole point is - was - that people can come in and associate in a 
club-like atmosphere, except their relaxant of choice is marijuana and not 
a beer," said the 34-year-old.

"Going out on to the street to smoke is a bit of busman's holiday, no? I 
mean, most people have to indulge their habits surreptitiously in the 
country where they come from. Holland was all about being a little bit more 

The global drive by the anti-smoking lobby to protect employees from 
passive smokers has already seen cigarette smoking banned in bars and 
restaurants in New York, with European cities like Dublin set to follow suit.

Even the head of the Dutch anti-smoking lobby, Clean Air Now, has conceded 
that banning smoking in coffee shops was not the goal. But Willem van den 
Oetelaar still backed the move. "It's not our priority, but it is a good 
thing," he said.

Mr Van den Oetelaar said the organisation's telephone hotline had received 
more than 2,000 complaints about smoking in public places since October, 
but that not one of them had been about a coffee shop.

The Netherlands boasts around 800 cannabis cafes, the first of which was 
opened in 1972. The sale of marijuana remains officially illegal in the 
Netherlands, but its use has been decriminalised. Authorities argue the 
coffee shops offer some control over behaviour that would happen anyway. 
"The whole point of going to a coffee shop is to smoke," said Arjan Roskam, 
chairman of the Union for Cannabis Retailers.

Cannabis growers and sellers compete in annual taste-testing competitions 
in Amsterdam, where millions of tourists a year sample the vast varieties 
advertised on menus.

In addition to selling small quantities of what the Dutch call 
"soft-drugs", many coffee shops also offer patrons comfortable couches, 
fresh fruit juices and board games. Alcohol is generally forbidden.

A Dutch health ministry spokesman, Bas Kuik said the coffee shops could 
have designated smoking areas.

Roger Howard, chief executive of the British organisation, DrugScope, said: 
"Until now the Dutch government has managed to separate the market between 
drugs like cannabis and more harmful substances such as heroin and cocaine.

"In introducing this measure however, they may run the risk of driving the 
recreational use of cannabis under ground.

"This could potentially bring the two markets closer together, with 
recreational users of cannabis being introduced to dealers selling a whole 
range of other, more dangerous substances."

The ban on smoking in public places in Holland met fierce resistance from 
the catering industry, which argued the prohibition in restaurants, bars 
and cafes would result in the loss of 50,000 jobs and 1.3 billion euros (?1 
billion) in revenue annually.
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MAP posted-by: Larry Stevens